Black History Month 2023 Tribute - Mary Starke Harper PhD, RN, FAAN

Feb 24, 2023

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month under the theme of Black Resistance, MFP/ANA Academic Program Consultant Freida Hopkins Outlaw, PhD, RN, APRN, FAAN spotlights three visionary African American nurse scientists who made historic contributions to advancing psychiatric mental health for marginalized communities of color in America. 

Part 1, Mary Starke Harper PhD, RN, FAAN

Mary Starke Harper PhD, RN, FAAN (September 6, 1919-July 27, 2006) was an African American nurse whose life is an example of resisting historic and ongoing racial, ethnic and gender oppression in her personal and professional life. 

Dr. Harper grew up in rural Alabama, the eldest of seven children. Among her first wins in life was convincing her family, especially her father, a businessman facing economic obstacles, to let her attend Tuskegee Institute. She was able to enroll and in 1941 earned her diploma in nursing. 

Keen to advance her knowledge, Dr. Harper applied to the University of Alabama, where she was rejected, based on their exclusionary racial policies, although it was a state school, and she was a state citizen. She subsequently graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota with both her bachelors and master’s degrees. She later earned a doctorate in medical sociology and clinical psychology from St. Louis University. Dr. Harper lost her beloved husband at an early age as well as her daughter, an only child at the age of 25 years old, both to cancer. 

Dr. Harper went on to develop the NIMH Minority Fellowship Program (MFP), which has had a notable influence on eradicating mental health and substance use disparities while working toward creating equity in the field of mental health. The MFP, soon to be 50 years old, has funded the education and provided mentoring of the majority of racial and ethnically diverse professionals in the areas of mental health and substance use research, evidence informed clinical practice, education, and policy. 

Equally, her work to improve mental health for the aging, with a special focus on African Americans has had a national impact in the areas of practice, education, research, policy, and advocacy. The Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center was established to provide inpatient psychiatric services for citizens aged 65 and older throughout the state of Alabama.

Testimony about Dr. Harper by friends and colleagues:
1. Roxanna Bender The Director of The Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center - "She's just incredible". "She's nationally recognized and a pioneer advocate for improving the quality of care of people with mental illness, specifically in the geriatric population. And even though she retired in 1995, she's not taken a break.”

2. In an interview with the Washington Post, then Emory University nursing researcher Ora L. Strickland, PhD, RN, FAAN, remembered Dr. Harper as “the first to shine a light on the health disparities of racial and ethnic minorities and the fact that we weren’t doing a good job with elderly people. She has had an indelible effect on health care and research in this nation, not only for racial and ethnic minorities, but for everyone.”

3. Enid Light, an associate director for research training and career development at the National Institute of Mental Health, told The Los Angeles Times.-"You didn’t say ‘no’ to Mary or that something couldn’t be done. She absolutely believed that you could focus research and attention on problems, and that you could find solutions to them. And she would never give up.”

What Dr. Harper said about herself, and pieces of wisdom offered:
- I was a Black girl from the segregated south who made it; 
- I might scar but I heal easily; 
- You are always going to have knocks but don’t let knocks, knock you down; 
- I like a good fight; 
- Strive for excellence; 
- My father told me “Life would not be no bed of roses;”
- Don’t let nothing in your own little personality stop you; 
- I love doing the impossible; 
- Your life will not be judged by how many things you have but how have you helped other people;
- and finally “You have to Think.”

Contributions to the Minority Fellowship Program
Dr. Harper was hired by the National Institute of Mental Health and charged with developing the Minority Fellowship Program that would include psychiatry, psychology, nursing, social work, and sociology. The minority groups identified at the time were Asians, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Being an innovative thinker, she listed five new pioneering principals to guide this new program.

The MFP would improve the quality of research on minority mental health by,
1. creating a highly competent cadre of minority researchers,
2. who would be integrated into the mainstream of the disciplines,
3. by virtue of training at outstanding graduate institutions, 
4. with the sponsorship of their professional associations. 

A bold innovation that she enacted when developing the MFP, had to do with how the funds were distributed. Instead of the common practice at the time of funding the educational institution or the fellows directly, the funds were given to the associations and included salary support for an employee to administer the scholarships, with he/she being required to be representative of one of the minority groups being funded. Dr. Harper used this method of funding the grants to ensure that the associations would be integrated at the staff level, which at the time was not the norm. This was a bold act of resistance on many levels.

To apply to the Minority Fellowship Program at the American Nurses Association visit

To learn more about Dr Harper visit

Read other Black History Month tributes to Ethelrine Shaw-Nickerson, PhD, RN, FAAN and Rhetaugh Etheldra Graves Dumas PhD, RN, FAAN.